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Abraham Lincoln Meets with Frederick Douglass

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

On August 10, 1863, Abraham Lincoln met with Frederick Douglass in the White House. Douglass had arrived unannounced, accompanied by Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy. They found the waiting room filled with people seeking an audience with the president, so Douglass, dressed in a dark suit on this sweltering August morning, assumed he would have a long wait. Instead, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay came quickly out to greet him and usher him into the inner sanctum.

Douglass described the meeting in his memoir:

“I entered [the room] with a moderate estimate of my own consequence, and yet there I was to talk with, and even to advise, the head man of a great nation. Happily for me, there was no vine pomp and ceremony about him. I never was so quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man, than in that of Abraham Lincoln….The room bore the marks of business, and the persons in it, the president included, appeared to be much overworked and tired.”

After describing the “long lines of care” already “deeply written on Mr. Lincoln’s brow,” Douglass writes that:

“As I approached and was introduced to him, he rose and extended his hand, and bade me welcome. I at once felt myself in the presence of an honest man – one whom I could love, honor, and trust without reserve or doubt.”

Douglass then told him of the object of his visit, which was to assist in the raising of African American troops for the war effort, an option now available after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. Douglass reported that Lincoln “listened with patience and silence to all that I had to say.” He asked pertinent questions and answered Douglass’s complaints with respect and honesty.

John Hay notes the meeting in his diary, adding that Douglass “intends to go south and help the recruiting among his people.” Later that day, Lincoln endorsed the idea as set forth in a letter signed by Secretary of the Interior and Senator Pomeroy indicated that Douglass is “a loyal, free, man, and is, hence, entitled to travel, unmolested. We trust he will be recognized everywhere, as a free man, and a gentleman.” The trip fell through for lack of a commission and intransigence among military leaders, but three of Douglass’s sons served in the Union army.

Douglass would visit Lincoln twice more in the White House. The final time was on the day of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, which Douglass professed to be “a sacred effort.”

[Originally posted on]


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